‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breath free’ begins the inscription below the Statue of Liberty. Yet despite this, early 20th century immigration to the United States was often greeted with hostility and not the open arms you’d expect in a country built by immigrants for immigrants.
Across the Upper New York Bay from the Statue of Liberty, welcoming immigrants into the nation is Ellis Island. Consisting of five buildings, most notably the Ellis Island Immigration Centre, it was for 12 million immigrants their introduction to the United States.
In the late 1800s immigration rose sharply, and the previous processing centre of Castle Garden was deemed unfit for use. The US government purchased Ellis Island and constructed a grander immigrant holding station. On 1st January 1892, a girl from Ireland named Annie Moore was the first person to be admitted via the centre. Five years later it burnt down, but in 1900 it was reopened and built larger to accommodate the growing number of arrivals. In 1907, the US had its highest number of immigrants in its history, with Ellis Island processing 1.25 million arrivals that year.
The island developed a reputation as “The Island of Tears” due to its sometimes brutal treatment of new arrivals and its rejection of people that were hoping for a new start in life after a mammoth transatlantic voyage. In spite of this though, the island only ever rejected two per cent of immigrants.
Anti-immigrant rhetoric would spell the end for Ellis Island, as immigration went into decline. Pre 1890s immigrants and their descendants (mainly from West and North Europe) disliked the new wave of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe. During the First World War, immigration fell sharply as foreigners came under increasing suspicion. 1921 saw the passage of the Quota Laws and 1924 saw the introduction of the National Origins Act. These restrictions were based on a percentage system according to the number of ethnic groups already living in the US. During wartime the island was used by the Navy as a dormitory building, yet when it returned to being an immigration centre it was never as busy as in the peak wave of immigration. In November 1954, Ellis Island was officially shut down.
Today, Ellis Island is still mostly closed. The main Immigration Centre is now a designated national park and a museum dedicated to the islands past – the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration. Ironically, more people arrive at the island yearly to visit the museum than ever did when it was a processing centre. The rest of the island, including the Immigrant Hospital, is off limits to the public and falling into disrepair.